On deposit in the Archives are the pre-1900 civil court files for New Orleans. These materials have several uses for the building researcher. Often in tracing the chain-of- title you will find reference to a transfer involving a court proceeding. In some cases the chain may actually be broken by a succession or sheriff's sale. It is then necessary to go to the court record in order to regain the proper track. If the COB reference is to a case with a CDC number higher than 60000, the court record will still be in the custody of the Clerk of Civil District Court on the fourth floor of the courthouse. If the reference is to a lower CDC number or to a suit from another court, then the record should be available in the City Archives. The information in the record will, in most cases, provide a fresh COB number or other reference to enable you to get back into the search.
Court documents can be very useful even when the chain-of-title is not broken. In a succession, for example, there may be an inventory of the deceased's possessions, including a room-by-room listing of the furnishings of his house and/or the contents of his business establishment. From such a record you can gain invaluable insight into the original use of the structure. Several series of deed books also exist, at least one of which (VF800/1846-1863) includes inventories made in connection with court- ordered sales. One of the most interesting of these provides a listing of the contents of each room in the St. Charles Hotel during the 1850s. Other deed books record Sheriff sales ordered by the court. These volumes can be especially useful in bridging gaps in your chain of title.
There is also the possibility that you might come across a court case involving some dispute that arose out of the construction (or alteration) of your building. One of the most interesting such cases is the succession of John Tiner. This record provides, among other things, incredible detail on the construction and later repairs to structures built on behalf of Tiner's minor children. Included are bills for labor and materials and testimony by builders and architects, Henry Howard among them, as to the value of the subject projects. This record would almost certainly be encountered by anyone doing a serious research project on one of the "Tiner houses. Other interesting cases might be identified by searching the docket indexes for the names of the owner of the property, since he might have been suing (or being sued by) his architect or contractor. Similarly, cases might be found by searching the indexes for the names of known builders or architects.
Other Archives Records
There are many other records in the City Archives that may be of some interest to your project. Most of these additional materials are more indirect than those mentioned above, that is, they contain useful research data despite the fact that their original purpose may have had little or nothing to do with the property in which you are now interested. Such documents were produced in response to some civic need, general or specific, and they serendipitously happen to include some reference to the property or properties in which you are now interested. Some of these records are listed below along with comments as to their general usefulness and specific references to especially valuable series.
Board of Zoning Adjustments
This body, currently part of the Department of Safety and Permits, began operations in 1929. It has the responsibility to approve variances from the zoning ordinance. Among its records are:
Provides the location of each property for which a variance was sought, the name of the owner, and the name of the applicant (often the architect or contractor). Also included are reports of the hearings held on each application. Details of the proposed zoning as revealed in the hearings may provide information as to the nature of the work intended, whether it was a new building or an addition or alteration to an existing structure. The hearings may also provide insight into the use and/or appearance of neighboring properties. Also included is the decision rendered by the Board, along with occasional comments on the matter at hand. [Note: Minutes from prior to 1943 were apparently destroyed, as were scattered volumes from later years, so that there are several gaps in the minute].
From the Acts and deliberations of the Cabildo through the ordinances passed earlier this year, the Archives includes copies of a large segment of the body of municipal law. A good deal of this legislation relates in some way to building in general or to specific properties. The Cabildo promulgated Spanish construction rules in 1975 and such laws were added to and elaborated on until the passage of the first New Orleans building code in 1910. These ordinances help to provide an understanding of individual structures by demonstrating just what the legal requirements were at a given time.
The Council also approved specifications and contracts for work on municipal properties. On October 12, 1820, for example, the Council approved an estimate of repairs to be made to the City Hall (the Cabildo), including the type of bricks to be used in the entrance way and the exterior colors to be used. Earlier, in 1808, the body adopted the contract and estimate for construction of the public market (the Meat Market of the French Market complex). Indexes are available for most of the ordinance series.
The Council collected a variety of supporting evidence for and against the projects that it had to make decisions on over the years. These took the form of petitions, bids, proposals, and letters, some of which offer detailed descriptions of the projects under considerations. The earliest of these documents are filed under the call number AB320/1770-1835. The available indexing is generally not very specific, but, given the date of passage of an ordinance, a search can be made of the Council meeting of that and preceding dates.
The City Surveyor was the official with responsibility for building matters (along with many other aspects of the municipality's physical appearance) during most of the nineteenth century. He drafted many maps and surveys for both public and private properties, he either drew up or approved plans for public edifices, and he oversaw compliance with local construction rules and regulations. A good many of his record books, plans, and maps have survived in the Archives. Some of these may be of interest in researching a specific site or even an entire section of the city. Not all of them are listed here, but the researcher may want to consult the inventory of the Surveyor's files prepared for the Archives by Sally K. Reeves (see the archivist for this inventory).
Measurements of buildings and walls in the 2nd Municipality
This volume gives data on the structural details of several buildings in the American Sector of New Orleans.
Specifications for, among other things, new construction and repairs to public facilities such as fire houses, police stations, and jails
This office absorbed that of the Surveyor in 1890 and continued the work of that predecessor agency. The Engineer's records are filed in a separate series within the Archives and they tend to be arranged in a more systematic fashion as well. The greater part of the surviving documents (in addition to the building permits and blueprints noted above) is made up of correspondence, both incoming and outgoing. The latter series is fairly well indexed and includes letters relating to projects of both the public and private sectors. In contrast to these outgoing files, the incoming letters are unindexed and not yet fully processed. They include communications from architects and contractors relative to building projects, as well as from other public officials and citizens complaining about substandard building conditions and the like.
City Planning Commission
Planning/Zoning Minute Books
These volumes include the official minutes of all planning and zoning meetings of the Planning Commission. As such they provide information on all subdivisions of real estate, both major developments and minor resubdivisions of squares, and on all requests for zoning changes that required Planning Commission and Council approval. In addition to the written minutes the books also contain approved subdivision maps and, in disputed zoning cases, supporting documentation from both sides in the controversy. The latter category of document may include maps showing ownership in the affected area and/or photographs showing existing conditions. In 1937, for example, zoning docket #184 includes photos of the neighborhood immediately surrounding the property at 4223 South Carrollton Ave. [Note: Prior to 1953 all planning and zoning matters were recorded in one volume. After that date separate volumes were maintained for planning and zoning matters].
The published semiannual reports of the Comptroller during the nineteenth century contained fairly detailed reports of municipal expenditures, some of which provide information on specific structures, mainly public buildings. In the first half of 1856, for example, there was recorded a payment to Pelanne Brothers for repairs made to the iron columns of the Vegetable Market in the French Market complex. In most cases reference is made to the ordinance that appropriated the expended funds. Sometimes these ordinances include additional details on the project.
Vieux Carre Commission
These are typewritten minutes of the regular Commission meetings. They include references to individual applications for construction work in the Vieux Carre. In some instances the detail is not very great as, for example, in the May 11, 1943 reference to "application of the Southern Pine Association to make changes to the front of their premises, 537 Bienville in accordance with a plan submitted, was approved."
Minutes of Architectural Committee meetings
Similar to the above series but often with more detailed reference to specific features of the work under consideration.
These records may have importance for several reasons. If you suspect that an earlier structure on your lot was destroyed by fire, then these records could provide confirmation. Fire reports might also describe partial fire damage to your building, something that might be useful to an understanding of the resultant repairs. Unfortunately, most of the nineteenth century fire records are missing. The Division's holdings are shown below:
Reports of the Fire Alarm Telegraph Corps
Includes exact location of fire, name of owner and occupant, use of the structure, amount of loss, value of improvements and contents, amount of insurance, and the cause of the fire.
Arranged by month and by fire district. Includes date and time of fire; name of owner and occupant; use, location, number of stories, and style of the structure; cause of fire; value, amount of loss, and insurance coverage of stock, building, and furniture; amount and type of hose needed to extinguish the fire; and occasional remarks.
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